The New Must See Movie: Le Mans ’66

The New Must See Movie: Le Mans ’66


Matt Damon and Christian Bale take the wheel in Le Mans ’66, a true-life tale of how a friendship redefined car racing. As a celebration of motorsports, the film satisfies the most discerning petrol head but as Susan Griffin discovers, the high-octane thrills go far beyond the racetrack.

Unless you’re a car fanatic, the basic premise of Le Mans ’66 might not get you revved up. It’s essentially the story of a Brit and an American who join forces to fight Ferrari’s dominance of the motor-racing world, in a single race that lasts a day.

But, throw in Bourne and Batman as the movie’s leads, plus director James Mangold (Walk the Line, The Wolverine), and you’ve got a scintillating tale that celebrates beautiful classic cars, a turbulent friendship and visceral racing sequences.

“The goal to me, in an age of incredibly computer-enhanced action movies, was that there could be something profoundly analogue and real and gritty about the film and the sexiness of these beasts, the cars, their engines, the danger,” Mangold has said.

“These characters are riding in a thin aluminium shell at 200 miles an hour around a track. The miracle that was their daring and their survival under these circumstances was something that I really wanted to try to convey.”

Mangold achieves just that with scenes that put you in the heart of the action by providing the driver’s perspective from the opening sequence and throughout the film – to particularly exhilarating effect in the film’s final stretch, which is entirely dedicated to the tension and drama at Le Mans ’66.

The movie begins and ends at Le Mans, starting in 1959, when Texan driver Carroll Shelby (Damon) wins the coveted title. His elation is punctured when he’s informed by doctors that a heart condition prevents him from ever racing again. With typical determination, he shrugs off the devastating news and reinvents himself as a car designer and salesman, with a team of brilliant mechanics and engineers behind him.

The team includes forthright British racer Ken Miles (Bale), who has no edit button and a propensity for throwing things around the garage while yelling obscenities. “I’m not what they call a people person,” he has the self-knowledge to state, although we see a more sensitive side in his interactions with wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe).


Nevertheless, Shelby and Miles make a brilliant team, grabbing the attention of Ford Motor Company’s Henry Ford II, who recruits Shelby to design a race car that can rival the revered Italian brand Ferrari.

As you’d expect from a real-life story deemed worthy of the Hollywood treatment, the process is far from smooth as Shelby and Miles’s creative vision is hampered by interfering executives. The money men also have an issue with the unpredictable Miles being the face of their “reliable brand”, especially Ford’s top man, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), who has a personal vendetta against Miles after the pair get off to a rough start.

We see the personal toll of chasing success, as the men risk everything to win Le Mans, knowing they might crash – literally and figuratively – at any turn.

The film is two-and-a-half hours, but the action speeds along at a rapid pace and doesn’t stall. This is thanks to intriguing characters, expertly written and effortlessly portrayed by a cast at the top of their game. Tracy Letts is a dominating force as Henry Ford II, whose bruised ego at the hands of Ferrari owner Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) prompts him to offer a blank cheque in order to beat the Italians at Le Mans. As they make changes to the Ford sports car, Shelby takes Ford for a test drive in one of the best scenes in the entire movie. It’s an experience that leaves Ford with tears of relief, gratitude and sadness running down his cheeks when they finally screech to a halt.

But this is Damon and Bale’s film, and it’s a joy to watch them squabble their way to a shared goal – making a multimillion-dollar car without the money going up in smoke. They even have a messy scrap at one point, which is refreshingly far removed from the actors’ usual slick and seamless stunt scenes.

At its core, Le Mans ’66 is a movie about cars but, like all great sporting movies, the subject matter takes second place to the emotion that’s wrung from every scene. You’ll find yourself cheering on the underdog from the stands long before the finish line is in sight.

Le Mans ’66 is out this Friday.

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